To the author’s mind, her husband’s “Jewish hypersensitivity” betrayed a widespread problem: the tendency for Jews, even secular ones, to put their Jewishness before the interests of their nation. “Instead of turning their faces to the Wailing Wall every time sparks of the ancient friction catch fire, they must make some practical and rational effort to adapt their ways more graciously to the Gentile pattern,” she wrote, “since they prefer to live in Gentile lands.” Although this solution had already proven tragically fruitless in Berlin, it seemed to hold tenuously in the author’s household. As long as her husband was away from his boisterous family, “his Jewishness drop[ped] away from him like a cloak,” and he was able to be what he truly was: first an American, second a Jew.
For at least one Atlantic contributor, the most opaque cloak of all was the Jewish surname, and in an anonymous 1948 piece, he explained his reasons for shedding it. In “I Changed My Name,” the author described how he and his younger brother had scanned the Manhattan telephone book, looking for an ethnically ambiguous name to replace their distinctly Jewish one. The moment he adopted the new name, doors swung open, and he was welcomed into society as a true American. To those anti-Semites who continued to eye him suspiciously, the author had this to say: “I won’t make your work easier, like a sheep considerately running up the plank into the slaughterhouse. Try and find me.”
Two months later, The Atlantic published a response from David L. Cohn, a Mississippi-born Jewish scholar. In “I’ve Kept My Name,” Cohn explained that he preferred being easy to classify. “Bearing an unmistakably Jewish name,” he wrote, “I am spared the crude comments of virulent anti-Semites, for even they retain a modicum of manners in my presence.” He was not invited to join clubs from which Jews were barred, and he was saved the fear of being branded an impostor. Most of all, he counted his decision as a vote of confidence in all the good-hearted Americans who had always treated him without judgment or condescension. “I am accepted by my fellows as a human being,” Cohn wrote, “or I am rejected as a Jew.”
While Jews debated the right way to assert their American identity, non-Jewish authors continued to ponder “The Jewish Problem in America.” In his two-part 1941 essay of that name, Alfred Jay Nock, an influential libertarian, expressed concern that Jews were still failing to assimilate. The problem, he concluded, was that the Jews were essentially an Oriental people. When Jewish manners fell short of Occidental standards, Gentiles needed to understand that the Jew had spent centuries herding goats in Southern Palestine, “warlike and violent as all primitive herdsmen are.” Borrowing heavily from H. L. Mencken, Nock wrote that the common American “mass-man,” unlike the educated Occidental, would never fully grasp the Jews’ irreconcilable separateness. For this reason, he worried that the bulk of the population would always remain anti-Semitic, blaming all Jews at the slightest economic or social provocation.